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05th May 2018

How Jürgen Klopp brought the joy back to Liverpool

Dion Fanning

In April 2010, Liverpool’s then chairman Martin Broughton offered what were reported as “detailed reassurances” to the Premier League. The reassurances did not concern the club’s disciplinary record or some other everyday football matter. The detailed reassurances the Premier League sought concerned the club’s future. The Premier League wanted guarantees that the club could fulfil their fixture list for the following season.

Six months later, Liverpool were fulfilling those fixtures in body only. As they prepared to meet Northampton Town in the League Cup, their then manager Roy Hodgson spoke about the “formidable challenge” League Two Northampton would provide. Hodgson’s self-fulfilling fatalism was, as so often, correct and Liverpool were knocked out on penalties.

A year earlier many believed – as maybe only Liverpool’s supporters can believe – that dominance and glory was about to return. This, it seemed, was a golden age. Great European nights had become an integral part of the season and the team, along with its supporters, created such an atmosphere, it was hard not to believe in their permanence.

Liverpool had finished second after a stirring title challenge and then, weighed down by bad owners and with a manager unable to contain his own obsessions, it all fell apart. Nothing is permanent and history provides no guarantees, no matter how much of it you possess.

This was the club bought by New England Sports Ventures (NESV) that autumn, a club that feared for its existence, a club which seemed to have been kidded by that history into believing that challenging for titles in England or in Europe was guaranteed but which now had to assure the Premier League that it would fulfil its basic obligations the following season. Liverpool had been sold to men who gambled on cheap debt and when the world turned, Liverpool was just another institution wondering if it was too big to fail.

As Jurgen Klopp sat in the press conference at the Etihad after Liverpool had knocked Manchester City out of the Champions League, he was asked about a statement the questioner attributed to him when he was unveiled as manager at Anfield in October, 2015.

Klopp, it was said, had stated on that day that it would take three years for him to make Liverpool competitive. Did he now feel they were on a par with Bayern, Real Madrid and Barcelona?

“I’m pretty sure I didn’t say how long I’d need,” Klopp replied, explaining that what he had said was that if he was still Liverpool manager in four years, Liverpool would probably have won something. “It’s already two-and-a-half years and I’ve won nothing so time is running,” he added dryly.

On May 26th, Liverpool will be able to test if they can compete with Real Madrid on a one-off occasion. Their run to the final has been unexpected, but a manager who spoke on his arrival about turning doubters into believers will not have been surprised by the development.

Jurgen Klopp’s management style has been based on many things, but he has, as the German football writer Uli Hesse put it in 2016, always insisted on a core belief. “Whenever I talked to him, he always brought it back to one thing,” Hesse said. “There are very effective ways of bringing a superior football team down to your level.”

Liverpool’s style under Klopp would appear to be effective at doing that, but even after knocking Manchester City out, he might dispute that this is the way for inferior teams to beat their superiors.

It may be that the superior teams – although this may apply more to Madrid than Guardiola’s City – do not have the appetite for what they face in a Klopp side. At the Etihad that night, Klopp explained one instruction he had delivered to the team. “If they want the ball from you, then they have to kill you.”

When Liverpool have the ball, they retain that lethal intent. Those in football who have dismissed Klopp as simply a motivator – and there are a few – have always been guilty of one oversight, namely what Klopp is motivating his players to do.

The high intensity, deeply structured plan he has for his sides is elaborate and sophisticated. It may work best if someone of Klopp’s charisma is driving the players to implement the plan, but he has never been a manager who is simply putting his arms around a player and telling them to fucking run about.

It may that the idea that Zeljko Buvac represents the cerebral element of the management team comes from the same place, although nobody could listen to Klopp for any period of time and believe they weren’t listening to somebody who had developed a well-considered design for life.

Buvac’s departure will not have helped Liverpool, but a club which was told that the sale of Philippe Coutinho was a surrender might feel that they can overcome his loss.

If Liverpool win the Champions League in Kiev, Klopp would not have to worry about time running out within four years, but he may have to manage expectation, even if he is a manager who embraces the idea, who never feels burdened by the history of the club.

One of his jobs has been to persuade the players that “they can reach the expectations of the people” and to persuade the supporters that there is no need for fatalism, which has always been the flip side of the optimism that next year will be the club’s year.

Liverpool managers, famously, are altered fundamentally by the job. As Jamie Carragher put it when discussing Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez , “the fella who walked in the door was not the same fella who walked out”.

All management jobs are capable of doing this, but Liverpool with its demands that the manager conform to some impossible Shanksonic ideal make it even more pressurised, although even that idea may form part of the terminal uniqueness which plagues the club.

But there is something in the mythology that adds to the burden, even the mythology in its worst ‘How am I doing, boss?’ form.

In Istanbul in 2005, a man stood in a queue for hamburgers allowing people to touch his scarf as if it were Padre Pio’s glove.

The scarf had, he insisted, been given to him in Rome in 1977 by Bill Shankly when he asked Shankly for an autograph. Shankly, he claimed, didn’t have a pen so gave him a scarf instead and here he was nearly 30 years later parading the relic on a night that would surpass most in the club’s history, even as it nodded to it when Jerzy Dudek imitated Bruce Grobellaar’s knee wobble on the instruction of Jamie Carragher. The past isn’t even past.

The day after Istanbul, the club shop at Anfield was closed because all employees had been taken to see the game by the club. This was an example of the close and intimate feel of Liverpool, something that was stated smugly by some as the Liverpool Way, and mocked by some as the Liverpool Way. It was also an example of why Liverpool had failed to move on commercially.

David Moores sold the club in 2007 because he felt it was time to make that leap. Roman Abramovich’s arrival had altered everything, even if the club had been falling behind for years.

Hicks and Gillett had big plans, but they were plans which depended on the easy credit that fuelled the boom continuing. When it stopped, Liverpool was left with one plan: survival.

That era was not part of the governing myth but it was a reminder of how quickly things can change.

And there have been times when Liverpool would be crazy to try and escape the past. At its best the mythology around the club creates a night like the quarter final against Manchester City at Anfield.

This is not to make the case for Liverpool’s uniqueness as a club, but the mythology and self-mythology serves a purpose which may have been lost on those who take a more sardonic view.

Arsenal, for example, have been a more successful club than Liverpool in recent times. Until last season, they had qualified consistently for the Champions League for 20 years and reached the knockout stages as well. They have also won the FA Cup in three of the last four seasons, but none of that has brought them sustained happiness. They have always done what is expected. Liverpool thrives on doing the unexpected. Sometimes they have had no choice.

If Klopp has embraced that aspect of the club, it is mainly through a style of play where Liverpool are capable of anything.

After a defeat at home to Crystal Palace in his first few months at Anfield, Klopp remarked that he felt ‘alone’ as the supporters left the stadium following Scott Dann’s goal for Palace in the 82nd minute.

“After the goal on 82 minutes, with 12 minutes to go, I saw many people leaving the stadium. I felt pretty alone at this moment. We decide when it is over. Between 82 and 94 minutes, you can make eight goals if you like.”

When Klopp highlighted the lack of belief, it appeared he was exaggerating for effect, but Liverpool today do look capable of scoring – or conceding – eight goals in twelve minutes.

“We never do it the easy way, ” Jordan Henderson said in Rome and if that is what makes Klopp’s side so thrilling, it is also what connects him to the fretful past of the club.

But Klopp has moved Liverpool into the future. On his first day at Anfield, he insisted that people in England had “to stop thinking about money”. For a club that felt it had been left behind and that worried about the consequences of being left behind, this was a revolutionary idea.

Money will always make the difference in the Premier League, so it may only get the club so far, but Klopp’s intent from the outset has been to rewire the thinking of the club and of the players. Eight goals can be scored in 12 minutes, money isn’t everything, anything can happen.

Within that sense of anarchy, there is great order. If Liverpool’s title challenge in 2014 took everyone by surprise, Klopp has imposed a system, even if the system sometimes depends on chaos.

Luis Suarez was the driving force four years ago and once he left, Liverpool could not reboot. Coutinho was never Suarez, but his sale illustrates how much has changed, how the club is now prepared for the events that once could seem calamitous.

While it was never Tom Hicks and George Gillett at war with Benitez, once FSG had decided they wanted to go with a younger manager like Brendan Rodgers, the time was marked by disputes over the transfer committee and who was signing which player, whether it was Rodgers or the committee or, maybe even occasionally,  both.

It was tame compared to what had happened five years earlier but it was a reminder of how the club can easily go in so many different directions.

In that, there will a message for Klopp of the challenges that are to come next season.

For Klopp, it is not a burden. No matter what happens in Kiev, the expectation will rise around Liverpool next season. Yet they might not even be in the Champions League, which would represent a setback, but nobody can deny the progress.

A few months before Martin Broughton gave assurances to the Premier League, one Liverpool supporter called Stephen Horner emailed Tom Hicks’s son, Tom Jr, attaching a link to an article that laid out the desperate state of Liverpool’s condition.

He received a one-word reply, ‘Idiot.’ When he queried this, Junior elaborated.

“Blow me, fuck face. Go to hell, I’m sick of you.”

After apologising to Horner, Hicks junior resigned from the board a couple of days later. Liverpool was as fractured as it could be.

By the end of 2010, Liverpool had been sold to NESV (who would become FSG) despite the objections of Hicks and Gillett. Broughton, who had been appointed to oversee the sale, was able to express some satisfaction.

“Every Liverpool fan knows that the most nerve-racking way to win a football match is in a penalty shoot-out,” he said. “But as long as you get the right result, it’s worth the wait.”

Waiting is now part of the Liverpool mythology, but Klopp’s gift is that he seems unburdened by the past while energised by all history can bring.

It may be that the club will get to him too, that he will be worn down and fundamentally altered by the demands, especially the demand that will now grow for a Premier League title.

But for now, he is too much of the future to be weighed down by the past. He has created a team which is exhilarating and relentless, a side which seems to cater for every modern whim, including diminished attention spans, by insisting that anything can happen, that no lead is secure, no task too daunting and never take your eyes off it for a minute.

For too long, anxiety and expectation have been the agonising pincer jaws which Liverpool had to negotiate. While it could produce tremendous excitement, they could never lose that feeling of enormous foreboding, the sense that it all could go wrong at any moment. Perhaps because it all could go wrong at any moment.

Klopp has been determined to change that.  “If you get up in the morning and the first hour is bad, does that mean you go back to bed? No, it means let’s try another one,” he asked at the end of last season when he reflected on the moments of doubt.

He has nurtured one another revolutionary concept: unity. The issues of the transfer committee was dealt with at the first press conference and now the club projects a united front, even if, as Buvac’s departure would suggest, that may not always be the case. But even that blow will not alter that purpose.

Over the past ten years, even when success was at hand, Liverpool seemed determined to split over an issue-  and usually it wasn’t very hard to find one.

But the club has changed through the intelligence and personality of Jurgen Klopp. There is a unity of purpose now, a cohesion that was lacking as the club was pushed to the brink. In those eight years so much has changed,  and when Liverpool fulfil their final fixture of the season in Kiev, nobody will doubt which side will be turning up.